Old Ladies in Red Hats

Have you heard of the Red Hat Society? I’ve been aware of them for a long time, and it finally became clear to me why I don’t like them. Or more accurately, why I don’t like their organization. The Red Hat Society is a towering monument to Missing The Point.

What am I talking about? Well, see, back in 1967 or so, this lady named Jenny Joseph wrote a poem called “Warning” in which she explained that when she became an old woman, she was going to wear purple “and a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me,” and generally behave badly in a lot of different ways, thumb her nose at polite society and celebrate her independence and joi d’vivre. It’s really a wonderful poem, which copyright laws (and Ms. Joseph’s diligent enforcement of them) prevent me from reproducing here. Others, less easily cowed, have posted it in varying forms all over the place under a bunch of different titles, including “When I Am an Old Woman,” “Purple,” “I Shall Wear Purple,” and the actual title, “Warning.” Go google it if you must; I can’t do everything for you.

So anyway, I happened to be out at a theremin concert (oh, go look it up) with some friends, whom I shall here refer to by the names “John” and “Mary” because that is what everybody else calls them, even though those are obviously pseudonyms; I suspect that “John” and “Mary” are actually unrepentant soviet spies waiting for the eventual collapse of capitalism and resumption of the Cold War so they can get back to their life’s work. But I digress. After the concert, we were wandering the streets of Sierra Madre (site of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but again I digress), and we passed a shop with a front window full of tea acoutrements, along with an assortment of red hats adorned with purple.

“Mary” made mention of having seen gaggles of old women in red hats and purple dresses at various events and destinations, and I then remembered having read about them. The Red Hat Society is a bunch of women over 50 (if you’re under 50 you have to wear a pink hat, since you’re not ready for red, but we’ll get to that), who follow the famous poem’s instructions as far as wardrobe and not one step further. A quick look at their official website reveals the flaw in their whole setup…..

A quote from Sue Ellen Cooper, the “Queen Mother” (gag ack barf, as Bill the Cat would say):
“The Red Hat Society began as a result of a few women deciding to greet middle age with verve, humor and elan. We believe silliness is the comedy relief of life, and since we are all in it together, we might as well join red-gloved hands and go for the gusto together. Underneath the frivolity, we share a bond of affection, forged by common life experiences and a genuine enthusiasm for wherever life takes us next.”

Isn’t that nice?

The problem is, that’s all it is. Nice. Go read the poem. It’s not nice. There’s nothing in there about being silly, nothing about verve, humor or elan, not a word about joining hands (red-gloved or otherwise), and not even the slightest hint of comedy relief. “Warning” is one lady’s version of the howling protest poems of the day, a tribute to individuality and defiance of societal expectations. There is nothing defiant or individual about dressing in purple with a red hat if you’re in a mob of identically-clad compadres. These ladies, who I am quite sure are delightful people in all the ways that matter, have completely missed the point. They have raised point-missing to the level of an Olympic event. They are the Grand Masters of Point-Missing. They have taken a poem that challenged them to defy the rules, and turned it into a codified society of conformity. They have rules! Women under 50 are forbidden to wear the red hats, they have to wear pink until they reach the magic number. If that isn’t a screaming rebuke to Ms. Joseph, I don’t know what is.

If they want to celebrate the life that Ms. Joseph spoke of, they wouldn’t be wearing purple dresses and red hats. They would be wearing whatever the hell they felt like putting on, whether that be a leopard-print jumpsuit, English riding pants, a pink feather boa or a Boy Scout uniform, if that’s what floats their boat.

And what do they DO while wearing their official Red Hat Lady uniforms and marching in lockstep? They drink tea. In TV terms, they took Lorelei Gilmore’s philosophy of life and neutered it, making it safe for Emily. It’s a paint-by-number copy of a Picasso. They are pretending to be bold individualists while behaving like fad-following sheep. Go read the poem. There’s no mention of tea. Here’s what it says to do:

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

A true follower of Ms. Joseph’s philosophy would be appalled at the notion of joining the Red Hat Society. She would be too busy doing what she wanted to do, in her own way, with her own style, and I’ll bet good money she’d be wearing anything but purple, and her hat is quite likely to be a sequined lime green baseball cap, or maybe a raspberry beret or a fluorescent yellow fez. Or maybe bunny ears. Anything but red, because red has been ruined by posers.

Listen up, ladies. If you want to go out with a group of ladies and drink tea, that’s great. Enjoy. If you want to be distinctive about it and all wear purple with red hats, go for it, rock on. Just please don’t delude yourself that you are in any way shape, or form living up to the life of self-expression that Ms. Joseph wrote about. You’re not. Not even close. Sorry.

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